# Ray Patrick

## Were You Mathematically Abused as a Child?

by Ray Patrick (other posts)*Note: This essay was originally written in 2019 or 2020 and stored in a separate “Writing” section of my site, which no longer exists. Since I’ve linked to it in other places and have received a fair bit of correspondance about it, I am turning it into a blog post so it will live forever.*

## Warning

If you attended public school during the last 50 years, your ability to think about and work with numbers and mathematical concepts was likely damaged at a young age - damaged by the negligence of the very system your parents trusted to help you. Maybe you don’t see the harm. Perhaps you think you don’t really need math anyway. This is an illusion. If you would like to keep this illusion and remain in blissful ignorance, I suggest you stop reading this right now. What you’re about to learn can’t be unlearned, and once you have read it, you will never see it the same way again.

## What Is Math Abuse?

Imagine if your high school had allowed you to graduate without being able to read. How could you function as a normal adult? You would have been sentenced to a life of difficulty.

In fact, it is quite likely that such sabotage was actually performed on you. However, it was not your literacy, but your numeracy that was attacked. This is not a screed against the state of public schooling (I will not call it “education”) but against a specific injury it tends to inflict on those unfortunate enough to be left in its “care” for 12 years. I refer to a tragic phenomenon that I call “Mathematical Child Abuse,” or “Math Abuse” for short.

If you are like most people, the very word “Mathematics” has been poisoned for you from the beginning. It likely conjures an image of a stuffy elementary school classroom where a strict teacher forces you to recite the dreaded “times tables” from memory while you watch through the window as another beautiful spring day passes away forever. If you somehow escaped elementary school math without incident, then you might have first felt the pain in middle school, where the infamous “Pre-Algebra” courses drilled yet more useless rote memory skills into you in preparation for some mystery known as “Algebra,”. Maybe you were an unusual kid, though. Perhaps you were a “math person” (more on *that* little fiction later) and got along quite well in “Pre-Algebra.” Surely, then, your hopes must have been finally dashed in high school, where you came face to face with the ravenous beast that has devoured entire generations’ innocence and thirst for knowledge. I refer, of course, to the Standard Mathematical Curriculum.

## The Standard Mathematical Curriculum

The SMC is the main vehicle for Math Abuse. Rather than describe it myself, I will defer to Paul Lockhart, who explains it much better (and funnier) than I ever could:

The Standard School Mathematics Curriculum

LOWER SCHOOL MATH. The indoctrination begins. Students learn that mathematics is not something you do, but something that is done to you. Emphasis is placed on sitting still, filling out worksheets, and following directions. Children are expected to master a complex set of algorithms for manipulating Hindi symbols, unrelated to any real desire or curiosity on their part, and regarded only a few centuries ago as too difficult for the average adult. Multiplication tables are stressed, as are parents, teachers, and the kids themselves.

MIDDLE SCHOOL MATH. Students are taught to view mathematics as a set of procedures, akin to religious rites, which are eternal and set in stone. The holy tablets, or “Math Books,” are handed out, and the students learn to address the church elders as “they” (as in “What do they want here? Do they want me to divide?”) Contrived and artificial “word problems” will be introduced in order to make the mindless drudgery of arithmetic seem enjoyable by comparison. Students will be tested on a wide array of unnecessary technical terms, such as ‘whole number’ and ‘proper fraction,’ without the slightest rationale for making such distinctions. Excellent preparation for Algebra I.

ALGEBRA I. So as not to waste valuable time thinking about numbers and their patterns, this course instead focuses on symbols and rules for their manipulation. The smooth narrative thread that leads from ancient Mesopotamian tablet problems to the high art of the Renaissance algebraists is discarded in favor of a disturbingly fractured, post-modern retelling with no characters, plot, or theme. The insistence that all numbers and expressions be put into various standard forms will provide additional confusion as to the meaning of identity and equality. Students must also memorize the quadratic formula for some reason.

GEOMETRY. Isolated from the rest of the curriculum, this course will raise the hopes of students who wish to engage in meaningful mathematical activity, and then dash them. Clumsy and distracting notation will be introduced, and no pains will be spared to make the simple seem complicated. This goal of this course is to eradicate any last remaining vestiges of natural mathematical intuition, in preparation for Algebra II.

ALGEBRA II. The subject of this course is the unmotivated and inappropriate use of coordinate geometry. Conic sections are introduced in a coordinate framework so as to avoid the aesthetic simplicity of cones and their sections. Students will learn to rewrite quadratic forms in a variety of standard formats for no reason whatsoever. Exponential and logarithmic functions are also introduced in Algebra II, despite not being algebraic objects, simply because they have to be stuck in somewhere, apparently. The name of the course is chosen to reinforce the ladder mythology. Why Geometry occurs in between Algebra I and its sequel remains a mystery.

TRIGONOMETRY. Two weeks of content are stretched to semester length by masturbatory definitional runarounds. Truly interesting and beautiful phenomena, such as the way the sides of a triangle depend on its angles, will be given the same emphasis as irrelevant abbreviations and obsolete notational conventions, in order to prevent students from forming any clear idea as to what the subject is about. Students will learn such mnemonic devices as “SohCahToa” and “All Students Take Calculus” in lieu of developing a natural intuitive feeling for orientation and symmetry. The measurement of triangles will be discussed without mention of the transcendental nature of the trigonometric functions, or the consequent linguistic and philosophical problems inherent in making such measurements. Calculator required, so as to further blur these issues.

CALCULUS. This course will explore the mathematics of motion, and the best ways to bury it under a mountain of unnecessary formalism. Despite being an introduction to both the differential and integral calculus, the simple and profound ideas of Newton and Leibniz will be discarded in favor of the more sophisticated function-based approach developed as a response to various analytic crises which do not really apply in this setting, and which will of course not be mentioned. To be taken again in college, verbatim.